When Florida's Republican Senator, Mel Martinez, announced on Tuesday that he would not seek re-election in 2010, Jeb Bush's name wasn't exactly echoing throughout the peninsula. "I would have told you at that moment that Jeb wasn't even going to think about running" for Martinez's seat, says a prominent GOP Floridian. When Bush left office as Florida's governor last year, he insisted he wasn't interested in running for President, Senator or any other job that meant wading into the Beltway cesspool. And there was also the widely held notion that Bush, like Rudy Giuliani and other domineering chief executives, wasn't especially well cut out for the compromise and deliberate pace of the congressional sandbox.
So the Sunshine State did a double take on Wednesday when the website Politico.com quoted an e-mail from Bush that said, "I am considering it." He'll probably decide, Bush friends tell TIME, in January. And if he does resolve to run, the popularity he still enjoys in Florida, as well as the lingering weakness of the Democratic Party in the state, would make him the clear and immediate front runner.
One important reason Bush has changed his mind, say Floridians who know the committed conservative, is that he fears last month's election calamity could dilute the ideological purity of the Republican Party. In an interview this week with Newsmax.com, Bush, 55, the outgoing President's younger brother, warned the GOP against becoming "Democrat lite. We can't just 'get along.'" Despite his disdain for Washington, the Senate would at least "give Jeb a bully pulpit," says a friend. That could help him keep his party from falling too far into the centrist, bipartisan hands of new Republican leaders like his successor, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who last month hosted a GOP governors conference in Bush's home city of Miami, where that more pragmatic politics was trumpeted. Even if Bush doesn't run, "considering it" at least sends the signal that after two years ensconced in private family life, he's back in the game and will influence whomever the party does pick to succeed Martinez.
Bush doesn't just want to preserve the Republicans' ideology, however; he also wants to put a fresher face on it. For all his right-wing reputation, Bush displayed a savvy dose of compassionate conservatism as governor, especially on issues like offshore drilling (he opposed his brother's attempts to revive it in Florida waters) and immigration. (The GOP's draconian anti-immigrant stand, in fact, is one of the reasons Martinez, the Senate's first Cuban American, felt he was in an uphill battle in the long run.) In a recent Politico.com interview, Bush, who is married to a Mexican and counts Florida's Latinos as a large part of his base, insisted Republicans "can't be anti-Hispanic, antiyoung person antimany things and be surprised when we don't win elections."
The timing is convenient for Bush as well. If he's now willing to consider a Senate run, then it's fair to assume he's also now open to a presidential bid, either in 2012 or 2016, when the Senate term would end.
Still, it seems a long shot that Bush will ultimately throw his hat into the ring, and his temperament is a key reason. Like his President brother, Bush has a prickly, my-way-or-the-highway streak that isn't exactly well suited to the give-and-take of the Senate. That's not to say that the notoriously methodical upper chamber couldn't use some of Jeb's admirable, results-driven passion. But while his education reforms, for example, did raise the abysmal accountability level in Florida schools, their overweening emphasis on standardized testing and punitive measures is more reflective of the GOP-dominated state legislature he reigned over and not the Democrat-controlled Senate he would chafe under.
Crist's possibly tepid enthusiasm for a Bush bid could be another important factor. It seems unlikely that "the Sunshine Governor," whose popularity and approval ratings have eclipsed even Jeb's (though Crist calls Bush Florida's "greatest governor"), would want to move from the governor's mansion of the nation's new bellwether state to an opposition backbench on Capitol Hill. But Crist's national aspirations were on display this year when John McCain courted him as a possible running mate, and the governor's first term ends, coincidentally, after the 2010 election. Even if Crist decided to run for a second gubernatorial term that year, he would hardly welcome having the spotlight turned on Bush.
Finally, there's Bush's family. Bush's wife is reportedly (and understandably) not fond of the political circus. Then again, the family issue can work both ways for the Bushes. Jeb's Senate chances, if he does run, could be dampened by the fact that his brother is leaving the White House with approval ratings that have fallen further south than Key West. Barack Obama was the first Northern Democrat to win Florida in a presidential election in 64 years, and one of Martinez's other big troubles is his own plummeting approval numbers, thanks in no small part to his close ties to President Bush. But that could all actually be a motivator for Jeb, whose sharp sense of dynastic honor is probably rumbling especially since the conventional wisdom had always been that it was he, the smarter sibling, who should have been President in the first place.
And Jeb Bush is, without a doubt, one of the smartest politicians the beleaguered Republican Party has at its disposal today. Which is why the possibility of his running for Martinez's seat probably shouldn't be such a surprise after all. When a party, to quote Jeb's former-President father, is in the kind of deep doo-doo the GOP stepped into on Nov. 4, it can't afford to let one of its top talents spend any more time taking it easy in Miami.